Exposing the fallacy of the “Model Minority”

Modern politics in America—as showcased by this 2016 presidential election cycle—stress the realities of oppression towards Black and Hispanic Americans, but notably have left out the Asian American population. Everything from political rhetoric to governmental policy has continued the myth of the model minority.

In his book Toward an Asian American Legal Scholarship: Critical Race Theory, Post-Structuralism, and Narrative Space, Robert Chang, a Seattle University law professor, argues that Asians are frequently portrayed as “hardworking, intelligent, and successful” and are “a model of perfection that is not subject to failure.” This idea imposes an unbearable standard on Asian Americans to either strive for perfection or be treated as an outlier—an anomaly of the community. The myth of Asians being the model minority correlates to centuries of the American public and government ignoring the maltreatment of Asian Americans. A result of this false narrative is the perception that there is no need for assistance for the “thriving” Asian community. In reality, however, large swathes of the Asian American population are in dire need of governmental attention and help.

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Graphic by Zoe Kim

To understand the history of the myth, we must look at the time after the Civil War. Plantation owners devised schemes to ship in millions of immigrants to avoid hiring freed slaves. Dealers claimed that the Chinese were better laborers and more obedient. Mass Chinese hirings were also happening in the North where they were used to replace the white strikers. Eventually the image of an Asian was associated with job stealers and aliens—forever foreigners.

Asian Americans were portrayed as a community that required zero help. This had two impacts: One, other minorities like theblack community were at blame for their faults—if Asians could rise out of poverty without the government, why couldn’t they? And two, Asians became a group that the government could ignore because they were supposed to be “perfect.” Their oppression in today’s society is thus neglected, cast under the background due to the facade that they are the perfect minority, incapable of undergoing harm.

In fact, Noy Thrupkaew, a Prospect Senior Correspondent at Prospect, states “poverty rates among Southeast Asian Americans were much higher than those of … ‘nonmodel’ minorities.” This defies the common conception that Asian Americans are successful and thriving. Furthermore, Asian Americans also face a huge school dropout rate. The lack of education for these minorities then perpetuates the cycle of inequality and poverty that many Asian Americans find themselves trapped in. Regardless, for the government, there is no need to take action—the public is so persuaded by the idea that Asian Americans are the model minority, that they can pull through any hardships with their so-called work ethic.

The welfare reform efforts of the 1990s cut off desperately-needed benefits to most non-citizens, leading several elderly Hmong in California, who felt that they would become burdens to their families, to commit suicide. Elders committing suicide in fear of burdening their families will seemingly cause outrage. Yet sadly, their pain is neglected not only by the media, but also by our society.

We, as a society, must change the norm for Asian Americans. We must acknowledge that the problem exists, and ultimately take actions to deconstruct the myth that surrounds the Asian community. A noteworthy method is encouraging discourse.

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Graphic by Zoe Kim

We need to start talking about our experiences, whether that be a narrative of what it means to be an Asian American, or how Asian Americans are treated by society. Sharing experiences and narratives will ultimately allow society to break through the ingrained individualistic lens and embody the Asian American experience—what it means to be an Asian American.

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